Hetalia Axis Powers 1-2 by Hidekaz Himaruya: B+

I really wasn’t sure how I would fare with Hetalia. I knew that its cast featured characters based on countries and that it had a rabid fan following, but that was about it. I expected a screwball gag comedy that would probably not amuse me much, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Hetalia is actually far more clever than that.

Really, there isn’t a plot here, or even a linear series of events. Mostly, it’s a history lesson made entertaining, with plenty of edifying notes to explain the references being made. The country characters interact in the present day, whenever that is actually supposed to be, and also frequently reminisce (or complain) about their shared histories. Stereotypes are often employed for the sake of a joke, but never mean-spiritedly. More, the vibe is a satirical one and though Himaruya gives America lines like “By the way, nobody is allowed to disagree with me” and Italy ones like, “I’ll do anything you say, just don’t hit me!” he doesn’t spare his own native land, either, as Japan’s introduction proves:

I am Japan. My hobby is to read the atmosphere of a conversation and answer in the least offensive way possible.

At first, the jokes only had me smiling but the effect was cumulative and soon their sheer absurdity had me giggling, like when America’s alien buddy randomly arrives. His name is Tony. Hetalia is definitely one of those series where one must fight the temptation to quote all the funny bits!

The second volume introduces more characters, including a few female ones, like Liechtenstein, who is watched over by protective Switzerland, and Russia’s bizarre sisters. There’s also a running gag about how nobody ever seems to notice when Canada’s around. It’s essentially more of the same, but I did encounter a couple of surprisingly serious moments in these volumes, including a sad kappa leaving the company of humans who no longer believe in him and America’s victorious moment in the Revolutionary War.

The lack of plot doesn’t hamper Hetalia‘s ability to be entertaining, but the one thing that really bothered me about it sometimes was the art. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, but it often looks like it was drawn by a very soft pencil and as a result has a tendency to appear dark and smudgy. It’s a shame because some of the characters are genuinely cute—Austria is my personal favorite—and Himaruya has true talent for drawing adorable fluffy animals.

I never thought I’d learn anything by reading Hetalia, but I did. As a word of warning, though, this series will totally change how one digests international news stories. As I was driving to work this morning I heard a piece on NPR about China providing economic aid to Spain and all I could think about was those two characters hanging out, eating churros and ending their words with -aru.

Hetalia Axis Powers is published in English by TOKYOPOP. Two volumes have been released so far. The manga is ongoing in Japan where three volumes are currently available.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

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